Of Spring Rains and Hateful Language


May 31, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HARVE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Spring this year was almost too perfect. The scenery was Maryland's, but the weather was Wyoming's or maybe New Mexico's. There were hot clear days, cool nights and low humidity. The air had a scrubbed, healthy quality. It was like visiting one of the newer local malls.

But under the especially brilliant green grass, the ground was unseasonably hard. The perfect spring followed a mild and dry winter, which followed a hot and dry summer and fall. Reservoirs and streams are low. The fields where corn is now starting to emerge are dusty, and the little green shoots are dusty too. When it comes to weather, perfection is a matter of perspective, I guess. Right now I wouldn't mind two weeks of gentle rain.

When it did rain a little I walked around in it appreciatively for a while, then went indoors and read the paper. There seemed to be a great many articles about sexual harassment, and not much agreement about exactly what it is. Apparently, perfection in relations between the sexes is a matter of perspective too.

In some jurisdictions, it now can be a criminal offense for a high school boy to call a high school girl a deleted. If the girl snaps back that "you're a deleted too, and so's your old man," it is unclear whether that, too, is a violation of law. The courts are mulling that over, and no doubt will provide an answer as time goes by.

When I was in high school I never had the desire to call a girl a deleted. The idea never occurred to me. It was hard enough just to get up the nerve to say hello. In those days, if a girl so much as smiled at me I'd think about it for a long time.

But the world was different then. I was 21 years old and a college graduate before I heard anyone deliberately use a basic obscenity in mixed company. No one present paid much attention when the shocking word was uttered, but I halfway expected the authorities to come in and take the speaker away.

Actually, back then, there wasn't yet any such thing as the Speech Police. Teachers and principals had more authority to make rules and enforce them than they do today, and there was a fairly effective cultural consensus on what was inappropriate speech. A high school student of that time who called anyone a deleted in the hearing of a teacher could expect a prompt and forceful response, though certainly not criminal prosecution.

Inevitably, however, standards change. My children, who are now 15 and 8, have surely heard more obscenities from television and from their own parents than I had at 21. It doesn't seem to have hurt them. And while I often think I'd like to find a way to shield them from some of the coarseness and vulgarity of daily life, I'm well aware that what we want most for our children often turns out to be something they -- usually for perfectly good reasons -- don't want at all.

While waiting for the rain to stop I got down Yeats's poems and reread "A Prayer for My Daughter." When I was in college I remember reading this poem to an older woman I respected, and being stunned when she ridiculed it.

Yeats wrote the poem in 1919, when he was in his fifties, well scarred by both love and Irish politics. The theme is a profoundly conservative one. It's a prayer that his infant daughter grow up to be beautiful, yet not so beautiful as be without kindness, and free of the bitterness that so often consumes those who dedicate themselves to causes.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,

The sort of beauty that I have approved,

Prosper but little, has dried up of late,

Yet knows that to be choked with hate

May well be of all evil chances chief.

If there's no hatred in a mind,

Assault and battery of the wind

Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

And then Yeats, remembering how he had lost the lovely Maud Gonne to the quagmire of his day's radical politics, goes too far. An intellectual hatred is the worst,/ So let her think opinions are accursed. No wonder the bright and politically engaged lady to whom I read these words in the early '60s declared that Mr. Yeats must have been a fool. She cherished her own opinions, as do we all.

The overt message of those who want to legislate what men and women may say to one another, especially -- so far -- on college campuses and in the schools, is that because hate is bad, language that can be perceived as hateful should be banned. There is a superficial logic to that which superficial educators and politicians find persuasive.

In fact, however, declaring speech of any sort to be illicit fosters the sort of intellectual hatreds Yeats so despised. It adds a dangerous volatility to ordinary daily discourse, elevates routine frictions to the status of political crimes and gives chosen groups a legal hammer with which to belabor the currently less favored.

My prayers for my own daughter include the hope that when she and someone else find themselves calling each other deleteds, as will certainly happen sometime, she'll be able to deal with it herself without calling in the law.

A certain amount of acrimony, some of it pretty pungent, is inevitable in ordinary human life, and probably useful too. It's like the salt in the soup, the pollen in the rose and the rain which dampens an otherwise picture-perfect spring.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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